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How Will the Next Transpo Secretary Build on Ray LaHood’s Legacy?


He strung it out long enough, but Ray LaHood has finally announced that he’s resigning as Transportation Secretary. Speculation has been rampant for months about who could replace him, and now it kicks into high gear.

Matt Yglesias captured the sentiments of many transportation advocates when he tweeted yesterday, “Ray LaHood was a surprisingly good DOT secretary, but it’d be great to see Obama give the job to a real expert next.”

What qualities will the next Transportation Secretary have?

There are political considerations that could win out over technical know-how. Given that this appointment will be made at the tail end of a Cabinet nomination process where President Obama has been criticized for nominating too many white men, he may look to U.S. DOT as a place to correct that error.

“Transportation is often viewed as place to check a box,” said Joshua Schank, president of the Eno Center on Transportation. “If you look at the last five transportation secretaries – [Federico] Peña, [Rodney] Slater, [Norman] Mineta, [Mary] Peters, LaHood – all of them checked the box."

"Not that they didn’t have other qualifications," Schank is quick to add. "They did. But they all checked a box of some sort.”

But another insider, speaking on background, said that it was “self-serving” for people in the industry to demand an expert “because they want it to be one of us.” He said that not being an expert worked to LaHood’s favor because he didn’t already have strong opinions about everything. In that way, the source said, LaHood was able to avoid getting bogged down.

Don’t expect the next secretary to share LaHood’s zeal for bicycling and transit. Given all the qualities and qualifications the administration will be looking for, they probably won't institute a litmus test for whether a person looks comfortable in a bike helmet.

But perhaps all isn’t lost. “I don’t think Ray LaHood was a pedestrian and bicycle advocate when he came to the job,” said Schank. “I think he was influenced by the people at DOT and the people in the White House.” Maybe those same people will work their magic on his successor.

What kind of secretary President Obama picks might depend in part on whether he really plans to make a big infrastructure push in his second term, Schank said. “If he’s going to do that, he wants someone in place in Transportation who really understands transportation and can defend the plan,” he told me. “If he’s not going to do that, then he can just do with a former elected who is a nice steward for the job.”

Will Obama make a big infrastructure push? “All evidence points to ‘yes’ at this point,” Schank said. “In a bunch of negotiations, he continues to put infrastructure on the table as one of the things he wants. He has not dropped that yet.” Still, Washington – and especially the House of Representatives – has a funny way of dispatching with deeply held White House priorities.

Who will it be?

Several sources said that when looking for new Cabinet members, the Obama administration doesn’t just look for technical expertise and demographics. They also tend to like people like themselves. They look for people they’ll get along with.

Some indicated that that was bad news for former House Transportation Committee Chair Jim Oberstar, who’s expressed interest in the job. Oberstar and Obama have a rocky past, and some say Oberstar has too much experience – that he’s too sure of himself, and unlikely to put loyalty ahead of his own ideas and toe the administration line. But NYC DOT’s Janette Sadik-Khan, LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, former Washington Governor Christine Gregoire (more often named as a possible EPA administrator or Interior secretary), former FAA and FHWA Chief Jane Garvey – these all get high marks from experts.

Speculating about who might come next is a favorite activity among the transportation policy cognoscenti. “Whoever they find for the position will be hard-pressed to match the commitment that LaHood has had to the administration’s policies and priorities,” Mort Downey, deputy secretary of transportation under President Clinton, told me yesterday. “He put safety at the top and was the number one supporter of livability and high speed rail.”

LaHood’s Legacy

LaHood famously told then-Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel he wanted to be Agriculture secretary, and Emanuel informed him he would be taking Transportation. But for a person that didn’t start off with an abiding passion for the issue, LaHood made a deep and lasting mark on the department. Many say he’ll be remembered as a remarkable secretary.

LaHood’s under secretary for policy, Roy Kienitz, couldn’t say enough good things about LaHood in an interview yesterday with Streetsblog. “Ray LaHood has been a terrific breath of fresh air in every way,” he said, “and we were all lucky to have had him.”

“When I got to DOT, I thought I would be spending a big portion of my time trying to convince him and everyone else there to do [work on livable communities],” said Kienitz. “And after a couple months I realized I’d gotten it totally wrong. He was sitting in his office trying to figure out how to convince us to do it. And it took a real mental readjustment for me to figure out that that was for real.”

LaHood wasn’t afraid to make his priorities known, Kienitz said. “He wasn’t afraid to be pigeonholed as a bike guy, and a pedestrian guy, and a transit guy.”

Indeed, Kienitz said that being a Republican freed LaHood of the fear many Democrats have of being pigeonholed as too “green” or too “left.” LaHood didn’t have those inhibitions. “He didn’t even think about it for a second,” Kienitz said.

LaHood was a different kind of secretary, said Kienitz. “The traditional job description of the transportation secretary is, once the locals get their act together and figure out what they want and how to pay their share, they come to you and then you decide whether or not it’s worthwhile for federal government to participate in this project,” he said. “And it’s this very stand-back-behind-the-moat, hands-off posture. And his posture could not have been more different.”

Kienitz points to LaHood’s involvement forging consensus among local actors when negotiations broke down in Northern Virginia regarding the Silver Line and in Detroit regarding light rail.

As Emily Badger wrote yesterday in Atlantic Cities, LaHood’s successor will inherit a changed department; one that sees transportation beyond highways, one that considers housing, energy, the environment, and transportation all different sides of the same coin.

Schank also gives LaHood enormous credit for his execution of the TIGER grant program. “If you think about the challenging political circumstances under which he was asked to create, basically from scratch, a discretionary grant program that was going to give out money in a highly politicized environment to multimodal transportation investments,” Schank said, “the fact that he did that and it was reauthorized three more times -- that reflects somebody’s good management over at DOT; somebody thinking intelligently about how to do this. Because it could have just gone the direction of high-speed rail. But it didn’t. It was very popular.”

As for high-speed rail, FRA Administrator Joe Szabo said in an interview this morning that LaHood can be proud of his legacy.

“When the history books are written on the success of the high-speed and intercity rail program, Ray LaHood is going to be one of the stars,” Szabo said. “In history, with megaprojects like this, there are always the naysayers, whether it’s the tunnels into Manhattan, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Panama Canal. And there are always those two or three stars in the story that had the passion to forge the vision forward. Ray LaHood’s going to be that star. And nobody’s going to remember any of the critics.”

I asked if the California line would be LaHood’s Golden Gate Bridge, and Szabo said it would be part of it. And that when they break ground this summer, even though LaHood will be out of office, he should be there to turn the dirt.

In the end, LaHood’s legacy will be constrained by the funding limitations his department faced. Revenues were simply not in his authority. And “infrastructure is not a cheap date,” as Kienitz told me.

LaHood’s successor is expected to be named within two months, and he’ll move on to whatever future awaits him. Before he goes, Streetsblog will sit down with him for an exit interview.

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